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Term limits push Florida lawmakers to secure leaders years in advance

This week, GOP senators rallied support around Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, to become Senate president for the 2023 and 2024 legislative session.

Few things in politics are sure things, but in Florida’s Legislature, Republicans like to know who will lead them for years to come.

This week, GOP senators rallied support around Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, to become Senate president for the 2023 and 2024 legislative sessions, assuming Republicans hold their majority over the next two election cycles. In the House, Republicans know who their speakers will be through 2026.

The process of picking the leaders of the two chambers years in advance is highly unusual, observers say, and yet another byproduct of term limits, which voters added to the state Constitution in 1992.

“That was an unintended consequence,” said former Republican minority leader Curt Kiser, who served in the Legislature during various times from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. “I don’t think any of us saw that coming.”

Lawmakers can now only serve eight years in office, which translates to just two terms in the Senate or four terms in the House. That leaves little time to learn the byzantine rules and processes of the Capitol, much less become experts on anything.

Observers widely believe term limits have given lobbyists more influence over the legislative process, since they can outlast generations of lawmakers.

But term limits have also caused lawmakers to decide their leaders years in advance. Lawmakers choose their leaders by voting with “pledge cards." In the House, where they have a decisive advantage over Democrats, Republicans have their future speakers lined up through 2026. Republicans have controlled the House and Senate for more than 20 years.

The selection process is so bizarre that lawmakers sometimes lobby for House speaker before they’ve even been elected to office. Kiser recalled asking a House candidate two months before the candidate’s first election how much support he had from lawmakers for the speakership. The candidate wasn’t even in office yet, and Kiser meant question as a joke.

“He said, 'Well, I think I’ve got about six to eight votes,” Kiser said. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I viewed this as a joke.’ I didn’t realize this was happening.”

The House speaker and Senate president are two of the most powerful positions in the state, leveraging their majority status to decide everything from school spending to special projects. They serve two-year terms, which are typically the final two years of their eight years in office.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, used his muscle during this year’s session to pass a controversial bill paving the way for more than 300 miles of new toll roads. House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, used his clout this year to pass free market health care reforms.

Observers say the race to become president or speaker hinges on how much money they can raise for their caucus. And the competition also produces leaders with similar priorities and beliefs as their predecessors, since current speakers and presidents frequently decide the fates of future ones.

“It doesn’t have a good effect on the legislative process,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, a nonprofit watchdog group. “It injects an extra infusion of money into the process, and it just becomes all about fundraising and who’s raised the most.”

Passidomo, 66, this week secured enough votes from her colleagues to become Senate president for the 2023 and 2024 legislative sessions. She beat out Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, a 35-year-old real estate agent and vice president of his family’s development company, The Hutson Companies.

Passidomo, a Naples real estate lawyer, would be just the third woman to lead the Florida Senate.

“I’m kind of in awe of the whole thing, to be honest with you,” Passidomo said Friday. “I’ve had a lot of younger women over the last couple of days send me emails and phone calls and tell me how excited they were.”

She’s been a strong advocate for school mental health funding and affordable housing, issues she said she wants to pursue as president.

If Republicans hold their majority, she will take over after Galvano, who has one year left, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who is set to become president for the 2021 and 2022 sessions.

Senators are already campaigning to succeed Passidomo. Sens. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, and Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said this week they’re running for the presidency for the 2025 and 2026 legislative sessions.

In the House, Oliva has one more year before Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, becomes speaker for two years. Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, has secured the speakership for the 2023 and 2024 sessions.

Renner, an attorney, is the chairman of the House’s judiciary committee and has taken a leading role in criminal justice bills.

Rep. Daniel Perez from Miami has reportedly collected enough support to ascend to the speakership after Renner, as long as the House remains under Republican control. His primary competitor, Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, withdrew from the race over the summer.

Perez, a redshirt freshman who was elected in 2017, sponsored a bill earlier this year to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, a priority of Oliva, the current speaker. He’s shown an ability to raise money, one of the chief political responsibilities of House speakers. His political committee has raised nearly $1 million this year, a spike that’s more than double his total for 2018.

Information from the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.